The last several years have not been comforting to struggling neighborhoods. Unemployment has risen, credit has tightened, foreclosures have created blight and a soft commercial market has prompted more "available" signs.

Several Keystone State communities, including Tamaqua, received news that should make them more optimistic about their futures.

The Federal Home Loan Bank (FHLBank) of Pittsburgh, creator of the "Blueprint Communities" initiative, announced that six eastern Pennsylvania communities selected as part of the neighborhood renewal program in 2005 are being recertified based on the progress they have made.

This recertification opens the door to additional in-kind and financial assistance as these Blueprint Communities continue to implement the community revitalization plans they have developed.

Pennsylvania's 22 Blueprint Communities were officially named at a State Capitol event five years ago that featured a keynote address by Gov. Ed Rendell.

Since that time, community teams have been extraordinarily busy. They have undergone training in leadership, organizational development and strategic planning skills; prioritized key community goals; built consensus for specific projects; and taken concrete steps in implementing them.

The six Blueprint Communities recertified last week are: Berwick, Hamburg, Lebanon-Northwest, Philadelphia-Eastern North, Philadelphia-Tioga, and Tamaqua.

As a result of their successes, team leaders were told at a gathering in Allentown, these communities will now gain access to additional tools to continue the momentum they have created.

"As these Blueprint Communities build on their achievements, they can look forward to additional training opportunities, fresh mini-grants, greater access to technical assistance, prospective funding from public and private partners, and the ability to tap into FHLBank funds set aside for affordable housing and small business job creation," announced John J. Bendel, FHLBank's director of Community Investment.

Success

by the numbers

How well have Pennsylvania's 22 Blueprint Communities done over the past five years?

$54.3 million in community development activity has resulted from the initiative.

FHLBank has committed $3.5 million in affordable housing, homeownership rehabilitation and first-time homebuyer grants to Blueprint Communities to date.

Twenty-one housing projects are under way.

Eleven business and industrial development projects have taken off.

Twenty-seven infrastructure projects (sewer, water, streetscape and beautification) have begun.

Thirty-one other community projects such as tourism boosting measures and youth programs are nearing completion.

Success

in many packages

What has Blueprint Communities meant to neighborhoods? A partial list of successes includes:

Berwick: Razing of blighted properties and the rehabbing of eight homes with 22 more planned for rehab by 2013, establishment of a neighborhood crime watch program and stepped up police patrols, installation of new playground equipment

Hamburg: Conversion of an abandoned manufacturing plant to seniors housing, a $1.5 million streetscape project, progress in developing the Reading Rail Road Heritage Museum, a riverfront revitalization initiative and the opening of an art gallery

Lebanon-Northwest: Construction of a rent-to-own townhouse for lower-income residents, admission to the state's Elm Street Program, HUD funding, gradual acceleration of citizen involvement in neighborhood planning

Philadelphia-Eastern North: 48 units of affordable housing through the Hunter School Homeownership Project; $10 million in commitments to convert the St. Boniface Church Complex to a community center, elementary school, affordable housing and retail space; development of a land trust and funding for urban gardens; a "Farm to Families" program providing fresh food at low cost to those in need; plans for expansion of the Norris Square Child Care Center.

Philadelphia-Tioga: Removal of blight and the rehabilitation of aging residential properties for sale, creation of a clean/green initiative with the City of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania Horticultural Society affecting more than 200 parcels of land, rezoning to make businesses more neighborhood-friendly and create more green space.

Tamaqua: Renovation of a former factory for affordable housing with a second affordable housing project under way, completion of the second phase of downtown streetscape improvements, additional downtown parking, initiation of riverwalk construction, funding for community-based student housing, neighborhood financial literacy programs, and promotion of live/work space for artists in upper floors and industrial space.

Beyond these projects, each community is experiencing greater collaboration among neighborhood stakeholders, a renewed sense of civic engagement, and access to a wider network of public and private resources.

Partners and banks

In addition to FHLBank Pittsburgh, Blueprint Communities sponsors in Pennsylvania include PNC Bank, Rural LISC and Sovereign Bank. Program partners include: the Governor's Office of Housing and Community Revitalization, Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development, Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency, Neighborhoods NOW, USDA Rural Development, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, The Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia and The Heartland Center for Leadership Development.

Members of the FHLBank financial institution cooperative that have participated on community teams include: Citizens Bank of Pennsylvania, First Columbia Bank & Trust Company, First Keystone National Bank, Fleetwood Bank, Fulton Bank, Jonestown Bank and Trust Company, Mauch Chunk Trust Company, PNC Bank, Sovereign Bank, TriState Capital Bank and VIST Bank.

"The Blueprint Communities initiative continues to inspire, inform and enable some truly engaged citizens across the Keystone State," said David Buches, FHLBank's manager of Community Investment. "It's a blueprint for change that's working, even in today's tough economy."